by Dan Hiestand
“Turns out burying your past down the deepest hole you can find doesn’t make it go away.”
“I heard him,” said Jace.
“Mm-hm,” said Kerrick. “Not surprising at this point. Well, see ya.” He’d spotted whatever he was expecting outside; without waiting a heartbeat longer, he stepped out from behind the table and made his way toward the door.
Jace stared a moment, disbelieving, then ran after him.
“Wait! You can’t just go!”
“Ain’t no just about it, kid.”
They stood together in the middle of the taproom, surrounded by roughnecks and madmen and bums who didn’t spare them a glance. The crowd was only starting to thin, but for all it mattered, they might as well have been in an empty room, alone.
“How am I gonna get outta here?” Jace asked desperately.
“You could wait your turn,” said Kerrick. “Probably only a few thousand years.”
A mug slammed hard, and Jace’s head whipped. Over his shoulder, he saw the talkative old man pushing away from his table. The codger’s face was rigid and waxy; he stared across the table, not daring to look away from his companions for an instant.
The lady was tapping her fingernails on the table in front of her; as the Red Moon’s light draped her, she ran her tongue over her fangs. Jace was sure that, in an instant, she would pounce—
The gentleman beside her put a restraining hand on her arm.
It’s time to go, he mouthed.
Belatedly, her gaze swiveled to him.
Then she stood.
Indeed, everyone in sight was getting up to leave. The publican set a little sign on the bar and began to call out, eyes searching for those who still lingered in the cool shadows.
“I have to go, too,” Jace pleaded.
You don’t have to go home—
“I guess you’ll just have to do things the hard way,” said Kerrick—
—but you can’t stay here.
—as he pushed the heavy door to enter the square beyond. Jace followed at his heels, but hadn’t even started forming his next words before he saw what it was everyone in Mirror Lake awaited.
Luna Scarlet ruled the night sky like nothing he’d ever seen.
That distant, menacing presence had grown a hundred times bigger, into a globe so bright and massive he could swear it hung only a few feet above the rooftops. He could see every mountain and canal on its pockmarked surface.
From here, it was no longer a fearful thing. People gazed up at it in wonder. As Jace stared in stunned disbelief, those behind him elbowed him aside.
“Last call,” muttered Kerrick – and he suddenly sounded very tired.
For the first time in his existence, no one was listening to Jace..
Kerrick simply kept walking; everyone from the Faraway Cry was walking. Tears streamed rivulets down the dirty, soot-stained faces of those who’d waited forever. Jace saw the young actress leading the drug-addled loon by the elbow; saw the two devas, their borrowed humanity peeling off them like paint. Impulsively, he grabbed the gentleman’s sleeve.
A face of marble turned to regard him, its eyes like lightning.
“Where are you going?” Jace asked.
“The time has come for all to return to the source,” said the gentleman, and on he went.
Jace broke into a dead run, following Kerrick’s path until it led to the shore of Mirror Lake itself. When he put his hand on the old man’s shoulder to get his attention, motes of ghost-light stirred under his fingers, trapped within skin like glass.
While the others were looking up, Kerrick gazed sternly over the lake.
“What is it?” Jace asked, coming alongside him to look as well.
“Maybe nothing,” said Kerrick. His smile – before he covered it with one hand – was enigmatic. He coughed once or twice more and then seemed finally to clear his throat, making a satisfied sound deep in the back of it.
But Jace’s attention was on something else: His hand.
Even after everything, all this time, all these lives, Kerrick had managed to slip the thing out right under his nose. The enigmatic smile remained — brightened a tic, maybe — when the Lord of Assassins noticed his notice. He turned at that moment to look Jace in the eye.
The worn, old figure was surrounded in a halo of bright white.
And, indeed, he held the horn.
Jace looked down to regard it one more time. The web of cracks he’d noticed was still there, and he felt like he could break the thing simply by gazing at it. But, as his eyes adjusted to unfamiliar light, he saw something that gladdened his heart.
Each crack had somehow been filled in with gold, making it all the more beautiful. He knew without knowing that it wouldn’t serve the same purpose it had before. Hands clenched, he looked up to where the stars were winking out, one by one. It would serve a greater purpose still—
“In a fairer life,” Donovan Kerrick concluded, as if reading Jace’s very thoughts. Jace smirked, too full of awe to fear what was happening. What would happen. “I’ll be looking after this from now on, greenhorn,” Kerrick said.
“I’ve slit men’s throats for less,” said Jace.
And that’s when Jace saw Kerrick do one more thing he had never done before.
The grizzled old assassin stopped his chuckling by raising the horn to his lips. Jace’s pulse quickened – dread breaking through at last as he imagined what might follow. But not even a single note sounded. No; it was like the silence between notes, adding its heft to everything—
And that’s what Jace was thinking when Kerrick broke apart into a million motes of ghost-light. Suddenly tense all the way through, Jace looked this way and that at the others around him.
The two devas were holding hands as equals now. The crazed man’s shouting had ended. Looking around himself with bright, lucid eyes, he was the only one to wave to Jace.
But the Outrider knew better than to interfere. He sat heavily by the lakeshore and gazed into the murky depths, but he could not find his reflection. He ran his fingers over the surface, but pulled them away in a flash when he felt something slimy ooze past on some secret errand of its own.
When the last ripples faded away, the dark water mirrored the starless sky perfectly.
As above, so below, he thought—but he couldn’t recall where he had heard it before.
Jace’s gaze snapped up again, peering a little ways on down the trail and scanning over the knots of people there. One by one, they lost their forms; they plunged through the astral darkness, each an arrow of light leading up to the moon. The shore would soon be bare, and yet ...
None of them are afraid.
Then Jace heard what he hadn’t realized he was waiting for. A wizened old man, his neck stretching up like a turtle as he gazed over the water.
Oh, for the love of St. Lucie! We found it! We finally—!
He was snapped up in the midst of that thought as if he had never existed.
Jace let his breath out slowly and imagined that soon, the same would happen to him. He sat and waited, following the progress of a wide-headed, dark-eyed creature that was meandering along the shore—a walking fish that thudded into the water a few steps beyond his reach.
It was the last thing to make a sound.
Mirror Lake was dark and Jace was smothered by silence.
Yet, he had no sooner had the thought than he realized he was not alone. For every moment had a color, a pulse. By realizing there was only one moment here – the same one he had been part of long, long ago – he had made this terrible place his domain.
Jace Dabriel promised himself that even if he had no way to escape, he would not be lost.
Scouring the rain-slicked shoreline, he was not surprised to see one other left behind—
That other stood up as Jace approached.
The red light was fading; Luna Scarlet was a healing wound. But the fog was still out, and it made the man’s cheeks too soft and his smile as thin and sharp as a switchblade.
“It’s good to finally see you, Jace,” he said. “Face to face, in better light.”
Jace heard the whisper of a dagger being drawn—
Saw the fangs of an onyx serpent gleam in the last gasp of moonlight as he faced down Dorsey Trent.
Outside Fairlawn City
Cedwyn Knight had not been idle while Isabelle was away.
He’d commandeered a small, disused supply depot out on the road and quickly turned it to his own purposes. That’s where Isabelle found him, chalking lines on the warped and weather-beaten wood.
“Wow, Ced,” she said, letting out an appreciative whistle. “If I didn’t know better ...” She turned on her toes to regard his work in all its splendor— “I’d say you were completely out of your mind.”
Cedwyn didn’t let even this pronouncement distract him. He was kneeling in the corner when Isabelle returned, carefully joining two sinuous curves. He stood only when he was sure of his work, letting out a satisfied hmmmm. Hands shoved in his pockets, he looked up and down.
“Séance circles?” Isabelle asked. “Are we going to help Jace or – or con rubes?”
“You’d be surprised,” Cedwyn said – but before Isabelle could question him further, he CRUNCHED down on his snack. The tell-tale smell of pickled sausages made her nose crinkle despite herself, and she let out a disapproving yelp.
Pulling the little mason jar from his pocket, he held it up as if to say hungry?
Isabelle started to wave him off, but her stomach chose that moment to grumble.
“They’re very filling,” said Cedwyn, “and I bet you haven’t eaten since this morning.”
“If I take them,” said Isabelle, “will you quit stalling?”
Cedwyn shrugged – Have it your way – but he didn’t go on until she’d taken the jar and secured it deep in a cloak pocket. That done, he let out a sigh, gazing straight ahead to organize his words. For just a moment, it sounded like he was praying.
Most of those we meet will be a mystery to us; the arc of their lives goes far out of our sight. Isabelle felt her back straighten; the words were like something from a half-remembered dream.
“The mirror, please, Isabelle,” he said, and she dutifully handed it over. After a quick glance into its surface, he started speaking in earnest. “You already know Thean had me recruit all the other Outriders who are serving today. Some of the new recruits will make Outrider-prospect in the next year or two, no doubt – but without that group of four, none of it would be possible.”
Isabelle nodded, leaning gently against the grime-spattered windowsill behind her.
“Until now, you’ve believed you were the second one recruited under that initiative.” Cedwyn rubbed his hands together, then settled them behind his back. “You were the second identified, yes, but the third to be recruited. The second was—”
Isabelle toyed with the end of her braid, her every muscle tense.
“—the one we know now as Jace Dabriel, who is actually Prince Dorsey Trent of Sindell. He was not first in line for the throne ... in fact, there’s good reason to believe he wouldn’t have lived long enough even if he was. His decisions after becoming an assassin ...”
“An ... assassin ,” Isabelle interjected.
“Yes ... his decisions made enemies ... who felt his interests in leaving the Adamant Gaze were not those of the crown.”
“So, basically ... what you’re telling me ... is that Jace is just a spoiled prince who got in trouble and used us for safety?”
Cedwyn laughed a little.
“Spoiled? No, not exactly. But, to leave that life behind and become Jace, he repressed Dorsey Trent in every way. His mind, his ambitions, his personality ... what you might call his soul.”
Isabelle’s eyes widened, but her gaze did not lose its edge.
“And what would you call it, Cedwyn?”
Cedwyn Knight flapped a hand to clear the air—
“A story for another time. The point is—”
And he paused, waiting to be sure she’d let him—
“The point ...?” she prompted.
“Without doing exactly what he did, other assassins would find him easily, no matter what he called himself. It was not an easy decision, and it’s fair to say that he was ... of two minds about it. But, in the end, he did it. And we, in turn, recognized his sacrifice.”
Isabelle’s lashes shaded her eyes now. She was thinking.
Cedwyn raised his finger to emphasize some point—
“To keep his secret, not even he could know he had one,” said Isabelle.
—and then put it to his nose. At any other time, the gesture might have made her smile. But Cedwyn didn’t wait a breath before straightening up, leaning forward so he and Isabelle were eye to eye.
Their faces: Inches apart.
“The most important thing you need to know is this, Iz – you, Isabelle Talabray, have never met Dorsey Trent, only Jace Dabriel. And you are the reason ... the main reason ... he’s still here. Or that he still exists at all.”
Isabelle stepped back, her nose wrinkling.
“Why are you telling me this now? Why not earlier, when I could’ve helped him?”
“Because you couldn’t have – none of us could have. Thean thought it was best this way.”
“Without Jace, the new Outriders would not be what they could be. But there was always a chance that things were going to get ...” He let his eyes cross for a moment. “Complicated.”
“Fifty-fifty,” said Cedwyn, hand wavering to depict an invisible scale. “This was the only way. The only way to make that choice irreversible. And now you’re going to save him from his second thoughts.”
“Me?” Isabelle gestured with an open palm to herself as Cedwyn backed down. “Why not us?”
“Where you’re going ...” Cedwyn smiled, but it was not a happy smile. “... I’m not welcome.”
“Fine. I can do it—”
“I know you can.”
“But I need to know more.”
“I’m afraid that there’s not much ...” Cedwyn stopped; brought his hands together in front of himself, a prayerful gesture. The mirror’s handle was caught between his palms, and he gently rotated it back and forth as he spoke. “That necklace you’re always wearing,” he said. “I don’t think you’ve ever shown it to me.”
“What?” The statement caught Isabelle off-guard; she fished in her tunic. “This old thing?”
It was a jade necklace with a little charm. Cedwyn nodded in appreciation.
“Do you know what the ancients used to say about jade, miss?”
Isabelle’s eyes widened again.
He looked down at the necklace as he spoke.
“Its polish represents purity; its hardness, intellect; its angles, justice; its sound, music; its colors, loyalty; its flaws, sincerity; its brightness, hope; its simplicity, temperance; its value, truth.” He made a circular go on gesture with his own hand. “If I were seeing it for the first time and I didn’t know you, I’d probably assume it was an engagement present.”
“I found it,” Isabelle said. “It must’ve been dropped by some—”
She stopped, mouthing one word: Wolfwood?
“When you get there,” Cedwyn said, “don’t stop moving until you find Jace.”
With that, he spread his hands.
The mirror stirred, its surface silvery.
And the world was filled with light—
Jace Dabriel is still lost in his dream, but he stands on the threshold of awakening.
“Really, you’ve done an excellent job. Absolutely excellent. But how could you not?” Dorsey Trent rubbed the hilt of his dagger between his palms as if to warm it. “Considering you’re me.”
Jace stopped to consider this for a moment—
“That’s real mystic and all,” he said at last, “but do you have any food here?”
“Stop posturing and look at yourself,” said Dorsey. He slammed the dagger back into its hilt and started to pace, circling Jace from a few feet away. Sure enough, the Outrider could see what instinct and long training had prepared him to ignore.
That nose was his, if he’d never been punched in the face. The cheeks, his if he’d had a taste for richer food from early in life. The chin, his – the whole face one that was more familiar than his own reflection, even though it lacked a few of his scars.
The eyes, his eyes—
And yet ...
He didn’t see any sign of the cut Relic gave him so long ago.
All Jace could manage was: “How?”
Dorsey stopped where he stood and looked out over the water again. There was still a sour-sweet wind stirring the water’s surface now and then.
Jace sensed it would die down soon, and Mirror Lake would return to its natural state:
There was no sound anywhere—not even the cry of some far-off, nocturnal bird.
“Turns out burying your past down the deepest hole you can find doesn’t make it go away,” said Dorsey. “You’ve been wondering if you’re dead. You’d be better off if you were. This is ...” He snapped his fingers, frustrated, willing the right words to come. “A timeless time. A place between places. People who come here can’t leave and they aren’t even allowed to die.”
“Hell,” Jace breathed.
“Hardly,” said Dorsey. “At least the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This place ... Mirror Lake ... it was always a part of this world, but someone with much less gracious motives decided to build a prison on it. His Majesty, King Graham Bryce III. Your father.”
“My father? No. My father was ...”
“Uh-huh. The more you remember, the harder it’ll be to ever escape.”
“Who – what are you?”
Dorsey laughed – a sound that chilled Jace to the bone.
But he already knew the answer.
“Can’t you tell? I’m you, but stronger.” His gaze ticked upward, and he grinned as if he had just made some magnificent joke – then circled back around to the topic. “I am the you that you call on when you fill yourself with those disgusting drugs. You who’s tireless, relentless, fearless.”
He had created another Jace, a not-Jace ...
“This is one serious feverlew hallucination,” said Jace, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Radiant and faultless ...
“It’s not,” said Dorsey. “It’s never been, Jace. I am the you Relican Avery fears, the you that drives Thean to drink. I am the you you wish you could always be, the one you rely on whenever you’re in real trouble. I am the part of you that matters most. Without me, you’re dead.”
Whose maddening visage he had to face.
“If that’s true,” said Jace, turning his back, “you don’t need me around.”
“No, I don’t. But you need me.”
Jace started to walk.
“This is the place the enemy used to create the time loop that killed you twenty-two times. It may be easiest to stumble into it from your precious Republic, but the truth is ... you can get here from anywhere if you know how. The invaders do. In fact—” Jace heard the soaking ground squish beneath his boots, but he knew he would never reach the place where he saw the figure-eight lake curve. The horizon would always be just out of reach, and as soon as he paused, Dorsey Trent would be right over his shoulder. “—get lost badly enough and you end up here, no matter where you started from.”
“Like Calloway?” Jace asked, and Dorsey nodded behind him.
“The enemy – moves in and out of here with no problem,” he mused. “Takes time from here and uses it out there. All the while hitting us from a place we can’t follow them back to.”
“So ... you know who’s behind it?”
When Jace turned back, his mirror image was smiling.
What was a faint green glow in all the others he’d seen, blazed like hellfire around Dorsey Trent.
“I know lots of things, Jace. The truth is, I never really went away. I’ve been right here where you left me. And you know it ...” Dorsey loped up, bringing them face to face again. “When you’re with me, you can taste what it would’ve been like. To be the king of Sindell.”
“I’m not a—”
“That’s for sure. Not yet,” Dorsey hissed. “But the only thing stopping you is you. You can still be king, Jace, and what’s more, you can be the greatest Outrider of all at the same time. Take me back with you and we’ll seize the throne, then crush the invasion. It’ll be just that easy.”
And somewhere deep inside, Jace knew he was right—
In his mind’s eye, he could see it:
The court of Sindell would bow down, and all its great armies would follow. The people who dismissed him for dead would fawn at his feet. The weapons that once terrorized the Republic would instead terrorize its enemies.
And Isabelle would be there with him.
“Finally, you can have everything you wanted,” said Dorsey. “Not so different from riding the gauntlet. Having all those people ready to die for you. I know how much you liked that. Imagine having the powers of two men with the duties of just one. Reshaping the whole world.”
“What do you need me—” Jace stopped himself. “What do you need from me?”
“Nothing more than you’re used to,” said Dorsey. “I’ll become a part of you.”
“You know the way out?”
“You’d be amazed at what this place can do for people,” said Dorsey, almost as if he hadn’t heard the question. “Whatever you take in with you makes you what you are. The Overshadows, the golems, even some of the minotaurs, all made into—”
Jace thrust his palm hard against Dorsey’s shoulder to get his attention.
“Out,” he said slowly. “We can get out?”
“Of course ...” Dorsey tilted his head slightly to the side, his frown turning thoughtful. “Or, I mean, you can try to do it yourself. That’s good, too. But it could take a long, long time.”
Jace sighed, staring out over the water again.
“A thousand years could go by,” he heard himself say.
“The Red Moon will come back here eventually,” Dorsey said levelly. “But there’s no way of knowing what’ll happen to you once it does. You can get so messed up here that you’re stuck in this place forever. It may be quiet now, but there are still things in the shadows, Cade.”
And it’s just you and me against them.
Jace turned to his reflection.
“You have to promise me. About Isabelle ...”
Jace saw a darkness fall over Dorsey Trent. It took him a long time to say—
“Isabelle will come with us. With you.”
Dorsey held out one gloved hand, outlined in the same green fire that burned in his eyes.
“Do we have a deal?”
In Isabelle’s dream, she is the barmaid.
There is nothing wrong with being the barmaid – nothing she can quite put her finger on.
Sometimes she tries to explain it, but she gets the sense no one is quite listening. It’s tiring to talk about it, but she tries. When she tries her hardest and won’t relent, people get upset with her. They say she has her head in the clouds; that she should join the real world.
It is tiring to talk about it; but there is nothing else to talk about here.
It is tiring, but it’s easier than imagining another life ...
... a fairer life.
How she got here, she doesn’t know – and whether things were ever better, she’s unsure. But there are always drinks to serve and floors to wash and potatoes to peel. Every day, potatoes. This is her life now, and there’s nothing else for it.
“This is my life now,” she repeats dutifully to every mirror.
Sometimes, she has nightmares – in her nightmares the potatoes are peeling themselves, the rags are dancing across the floor. She should be grateful for this small relief, however brief it is, but it fills her with wordless dread.
Without this, who is she?
What worse “real world” will await her when she’s useless?
And that’s how things go for thousands upon thousands of miserable, tedious years—
Until one day, while saying her accustomed penance in the mirror, she notices—
The jade necklace she can’t recall ever receiving.
Then it occurs to her that the taproom is empty.
It has been empty for a long, long time.
A single word calls to her in the fog.
Isabelle Talabray runs through the streets, cold cobbles burning her bare feet. Mirror Lake is even more empty than she remembers. The moon is gone and there are no stars in the sky. The rain won’t fall and the wind won’t blow. Even the cats have disappeared.
At the edge of the lake, she sees them—
Jace reaches out his hand to Dorsey Trent’s burning one—
In Trent’s other hand is the mirror-bright dagger he took from Donovan Kerrick’s body. Their gazes are locked, and Jace doesn’t see the blade rise.
“No!” Isabelle cries—
It was not Jace’s voice, but Dorsey’s—
Blade still half-raised in the air, he turned toward her. Isabelle saw, on a stranger’s face, the most heartbreaking look of guilt, pity, and sadness she had ever witnessed. Instantly, she recalled who she has been and who she was now—
She remembered a time when that face was familiar and precious.
In an instant, a flash of golden radiance, the barmaid’s rags transformed into the garb of an Outrider. Isabelle’s hair streamed loose as she drew closer; her great wings unfurled behind her, and in their sight, she was no mere fallen angel—she was simply an angel – complete with a flaming sword at her side.
She reached to draw it out, Dorsey frozen in fear or indecision before her.
That was all Jace needed.
Before Isabelle could speak a word, Jace was there like a diving eagle, his own dagger at the ready. The pale dragon and dark snake twisted against one another in the air as the two struck, parried, and sidestepped.
It seemed neither could overcome the other—
With a snarl, Dorsey lunged.
As Jace fell back, he heard the cling! of his dagger being struck. As it fell from his hands, the black waters of the lake closed greedily around it. A few tiny, greenish bubbles coasted to the surface and then the heirloom was gone.
Jace saw murder in Dorsey’s blazing eyes.
Twice, three times, Jace stepped out of the way at the last instant— Drawing his enemy closer with each strike until he seized Dorsey’s wrist and twisted it. He pivoted behind the assassin’s back, trying to slit his throat with his own weapon.
“Iz ...” Dorsey breathed. “Help me!”
“Isabelle,” said Jace. “I’m sorry—”
And with that, he tugged.
Dorsey was just strong enough to hold his arm in place and keep the blade away. They wrestled like that for endless moments, feet slipping on the treacherous, mossy rocks as they struggled for advantage. Over his enemy’s shoulder, Jace sought Isabelle’s eyes.
“The only way to protect you is to stop him ... stop us both.”
Dorsey broke free, pounding Jace’s chest with his elbows.
The dagger fell from his loosening grip—
“Jace, you’re not like him! You don’t have to do this!”
Jace could only stand, dazed, as he struggled to keep his balance on the rocks. Dorsey dove for the dagger – and for one instant, as he rose, his face was turned toward Isabelle again. That face, from another life, all washed out with something infernal.
His eyes were full of ghost-light motes, screaming silently.
Isabelle saw Jace rising to strike, and her own gaze ticking up tipped off Dorsey—
But something jerked Dorsey off-balance at the last instant, making his strike go wide—a slimy hand coated in terrible green ichor. He looked down, struggled to pull his leg free; but another hand joined the first, its bony grip as strong as a vise.
The waters of Mirror Lake were boiling.
Something unspeakable was coming—
There are still things in the shadows.
“Calloway!” Jace shouted.
And indeed, it was Calloway – a Calloway who was twisted and grotesque, every tissue bloated brown, but still gasping for air in saturated lungs. Its fingers were stubs of bone; in all the places its body was mangled, scummy weeds bulged in place of its ragged flesh.
“Stop it,” Dorsey hissed, sawing desperately at the exposed bone in the thing’s wrist. People who come here can’t leave— “You can’t do this to me! This isn’t even my—”
Jace had turned his back; he didn’t so much see as feel the hands close around Dorsey’s throat.
Dorsey Trent stabbed and stabbed, but no wound he could make changed Calloway’s fate one iota. There were two Calloways now, then three, four, five – each with desperate, self-inflicted wounds. Some bore stones; others had rotting rope coiled around their broken necks.
Their eyes—or eyeless sockets—were still weeping with the injustice. Lake water gurgled from their mouths, drowning out their accusations.
—and they aren’t even allowed to die.
Jace sensed Isabelle at his shoulder.
“He tried to save himself the only way he could. Every single time,” he said, but at her confused look, he shrugged it off. “Isabelle, we’ve got to get out of here now!”
Dorsey’s screams – his own screams – echoed in his ears as he ran.
They got as far as the central square, with its bone-dry fountain, when Jace stumbled. A loud and very final splash echoed in Jace’s ears, making him gasp for breath.
“Jace, we can’t stop here!”
“This is all my fault—”
Isabelle seized Jace’s hands in both palms and made him face her.
“Dabriel, listen to me. Whatever he is, whatever he could have been – you’re not the same!”
“You don’t understand ...”
And with that, Jace collapsed on the bench beside the fountain. Across from them was a vast, faded mural, and he rolled his head to look at it. It was a genealogy, but the older figures were all worn down and cracked; the knight’s face could not be seen, only the ditch-digger’s.
When he realized what he was looking at, he laughed.
“This place really lays it on thick sometimes, huh?” he said.
Isabelle took a pointed look at the path they’d come down, then sat beside Jace.
Jace said: “He is me – the me who never left here. Who stopped growing on that night and never gave up waiting for things to change back. If I had just been stronger, I could’ve protected you.”
“You did! You have,” said Isabelle.
“No. I could have let go of him. I could’ve made that choice ... but I ... I felt guilty.”
“You haven’t done anything wrong—”
Jace silenced her with one finger on her lips.
“I just left you here, girl. When I defected, you were kept here as punishment. That was Thean’s bargaining chip. He sent Wolfwood – Cedwyn – to get you out. Once you were safe, I joined his Outriders. Ever since, there’ve been people in Sindell who want me back. But none more than me, I guess.” He saw her eyes widen, and she knew it was true.
“After we leave, you’ll forget again. But I can’t. For the life I wanted—you paid the price.” There was a long silence between them. “You existed out of time. I’m sorry. I am so, so sorry ...”
Then, Isabelle clasped Jace’s hand.
“Whatever we were ... this is our life now.”
His only response was a sigh.
But eventually he nodded.
“How do we get out of here?” Jace asked.
“I think I know,” said Isabelle, and she bobbed to her feet.
“Cedwyn once told me a Mazhiran hunting cat can smell things that aren’t even real yet – things that only exist in potential.” Scrunching her nose, she pulled out a jar of pickled sausages and held it out. Then she opened it, as if bearing an offering—
That some old mad widow had released a pair of cats ...
Sure enough, a pair of lamp-light eyes appeared at the end of the road.
... And now, barely a generation since, anyone with sense prayed only to the cat-god.
Above them, deft black ears.
It’s a magical place.
“Follow me,” said Isabelle.
Jace opened his eyes, and then ... nothing.
Jace found himself growing tense ...
Jace could feel the energy swirling around him, burning away no stronger than static. Then his eyes snapped open wide, expecting a new weapon, a new danger—
... an electric feeling dancing all over his skin.
But what he saw instead was the golden rider, in the same armor that Treinen has been wearing, face still hidden, head tilting to the side like a dog who’d lost track of the ball. The gesture was so clear and so familiar – Jace realized he was doing it himself, a mirror image – that a grin came unbidden to his face.
Something was not right as far as the enemy was concerned.
As the rictus grin broke wider, Jace saw his adversary snap the reins in a swirl of red robes. With that simple gesture, the golden rider came to a full stop. He looked after him a moment more, seeking an explanation that would never come— But he didn’t dare slow down, even as his foe stared, eerie and motionless in his wake.
At the last moment before Jace turned to the road before him – a moment remembered more than seen – he could have sworn he caught the thing ... nodding at him.
Like a prizefighter, respectfully conceding one round in a fight that was not yet done.
Jace shook it all from his thoughts, returning his gaze to the end of the road and the opening— His escape lay before him, a matter of feet rather than leagues.
And waiting in the path—
A familiar silhouette:
“Go, Relic! I’m fine!” Jace yelled, shocked by his own words and the strange sensation of hearing his voice again. It felt like ages ... but not so long that Relic had lost faith in him. In an instant, the other man turned and rode out, Jace following only moments behind.
And just like that, his partner escaped from Westwood Forest once and for all.
But Jace was not yet done. He found himself looking back, and he gazed down at his hands for a heartbeat before he clenched them into fists and focused on the vivid world around him.
There was nothing below – and nothing behind him.
Just the darkness of the empty Thoroughfare and the extinguished lanterns.
Each dry rattle in the wind spurred him on, called him home.
The trees seemed suddenly, and altogether suffocating.
It was time to leave Westwood behind.
He thought of Hobson, alone and broken in the shadows out there. Somewhere. But this time, Jace held his breath and fixed his eyes on the Tenzan Plains just ahead.